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World: The Lengthening Shadow Of The Plutonium Economy

Prague, 22 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The prospective further integration of plutonium into the world economy -- and the dangers that entails -- will be the focus of a meeting of nuclear experts in Vienna six weeks from now.

This has been announced by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which will host the four-day gathering that will bring together some 150 experts from governments and the nuclear industry.

The IAEA says the meeting, scheduled from June 3 to 6, is intended to clarify options open to the nuclear industry in the next half century, when all fuel sources including oil, natural gas, coal, and Uranium are expected to become more expensive. Various likely scenarios will be put to the experts for debate, each one dealing with possible increased plutonium use in differing ways and degrees.

Expert opinion is at present divided on what to do about the world's increasing mountain of plutonium. Some 160 tons of the highly radioactive material already exists and is stockpiled in pure form. More is being added from dismantled nuclear weapons, and still more is being created constantly as a by-product in spent nuclear fuel rods. Each year, each of the world's 430 nuclear reactors produces some 30 tons of waste, and a fraction of this is plutonium.

If the coming Vienna meeting produces a consensus among the experts that the increasingly common plutonium has a bigger role to play as a fuel in the routine nuclear energy cycle, then mankind could be moving towards a significant threshold -- the use in civil life of a fuel so deadly that a single grain smaller than a speck of dust will kill an individual if inhaled. plutonium remains toxic for one quarter of a million years.

The IAEA says the experts will be considering basic issues that would be raised by increased plutonium use, like cooperation on the use of recycled material from nuclear weapons, and health and safety issues. They will also consider the possibility for increased commercial use of fast breeder reactors, which burn plutonium but at the same time produce more plutonium than they use. Russia, Japan and France are still exploring this technology, which because of various technical problems appears to have lost some of its attractions.

The Vienna meeting will also consider the use of fuel that is a blend of recycled plutonium and Uranium, a mixed oxide known as MOX. Normal commercial use of MOX is seen as an attractive proposition by some countries such as Russia, which have enormous stocks of plutonium and want to see that material put to use.

IAEA spokesman David Kyd explains that the basic choices regarding plutonium are whether to burn it to produce energy, whether to store it pending some as-yet unknown use offered by a new technology, or whether to "vitrify" it for permanent waste disposal.

The United States prefers the last option -- permanent disposal -- but has understanding for the Russian desire to put its vast investment in plutonium to commercial use.

Kyd says that in staging the Vienna meeting his agency is seeking to crystalize thinking among governments and the industry about how to get through the next 40 or 40 years. At that stage, he says, renewable, "soft" energy sources should be able can take over the load of energy production.

Kyd acknowledges that many people in the post-Chernobyl era do not consider nuclear power to be a viable option even for that span of time. But he says that nuclear energy today produces 17 per cent of the world's electricity, and that the only alternatives in the short run are fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas -- all of which contribute to the greenhouse effect heating up the atmosphere.

"There are no free lunches as far as energy goes", Kyd told an RFE/RL correspondent last week. "You either have more nuclear energy or more fossil fuel use, and accept the penalties that go along with either form."

Rather surprisingly, Kyd says the nuclear industry is prepared to fade away and go out of business when newer, environmentally friendlier and cheaper technologies are ready to take over. He notes the expense and technical difficulties of nuclear energy, as well as the chronic and still unsolved radioactive waste problem piling up around the world.

The international environmental organization Greenpeace doubts the seriousness of the nuclear industry's intention to step aside and let wind and solar power, the so-called soft technologies, take over. Greenpeace's nuclear affairs spokesman for the 29 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, Eloi Glorieux, sees the Vienna meeting as part of what he calls a "masquerade."

Glorieux, who spoke to RFE/RL from Brussels last week, urged a blitz campaign in favor of soft technologies that would launch them more quickly into the practical energy arena. He recalled that a speech by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 in favor of the peaceful uses of atomic power had led to governments making an enormous effort to harness the atom for electricity generation.